Though no longer the rich city of its nineteenth-century heyday, Béziers has admirable panache. The town is the capital of the Languedoc wine country and a focus for the Occitan movement, as well as being the birthplace of Resistance hero Jean Moulin. Today local resistance takes the form of the CRIV, a radical clandestine group championing the area’s besieged vintners, which occasionally employs modest but violent acts of terrorism. The town is also home to two great Languedocian adopted traditions: English rugby and the Spanish corrida, both of which are followed with a passion. The best time to visit is during the mid-August feria, a raucous four-day party that can be enjoyed even if bullfighting isn’t to your taste.
The finest view of the Old Town is from the west, as you come in from Carcassonne: crossing the willow-lined River Orb by the Pont-Neuf, you can look upstream at the sturdy arches of the Pont-Vieux, above which rises a steep-banked hill crowned by the Cathédrale St-Nazaire which, with its crenellated towers, resembles a castle more than a church. The best approach to the cathedral is up the medieval lanes at the end of Pont-Vieux, rue Canterelles and passage Canterellettes. Its architecture is mainly Gothic, the original building having burned down in 1209 during the sacking of Béziers, when Armand Amaury’s crusaders massacred some seven thousand people at the church of the Madeleine for refusing to hand over about twenty Cathars. “Kill them all”, the pious abbot is said to have ordered, “God will recognize his own!”
From the top of the cathedral tower, there’s a superb view out across the vine-dominated surrounding landscape. Keep an eye on small children, however, lest they slip through the potentially perilous gaps in the wall. Next door, you can wander through the ancient cloister and out into the shady bishop’s garden overlooking the river.